What would happen to the Iron Man franchise if you took out all the "iron"—the slit-eyed helmet and headlamp breastplate, ruby-red gauntlets and metal mukluks, repulsor rays and boot-jets--and left just the man, billionaire daredevil Tony Stark, armed with nothing more than his wicked goatee, dagger-sharp irony, and impenetrable aura of self-love? (Many superheroes have made do with less.)
The question may seem perverse, but surely I'm not the only person to have asked it. Even the director of the franchise's two installments to date, Jon Favreau, seems to view the heavy clanking of mechanized men as a bit of a chore: the kind of well-prepared yet unremarkable meat course that must inevitably follow the delightful amuse bouche of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Stark. The first Iron Man was at its very best in the early going, when pre-heroic arms-dealer/impresario Stark was putting on a show for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. ("Is it better to be feared or respected?" he asked rhetorically. "Is it too much to hope for both?") The unforeseen denouement of his presentation, however, found Stark captured by militants and stashed away in a mountain cave, where he learned the somewhat equivocal lesson that it's only okay to create unfathomably destructive weapons if you don't allow anyone to use them but yourself. Stark doesn't merely sing of arms and the man: Suited up, he is arms and the man. His campaign to remain unique in this respect (generous interpretation: counter-proliferator; less generous: monopolist) played a subsidiary role in the first film, in which he ultimately pummeled competing cyber-capitalist Jeff Bridges so badly that he turned him into a drunken, down-and-out country singer.
By Iron Man 2, however, the race to build a rival suit of armor is in full swing--like current corporate efforts to manufacture a viable fuel-cell car or another Megan Fox. Sam Rockwell shows up as sleazy Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, out to increase his share of the military cyborg market; Gary Shandling, his head as puffy as a microwaved tater tot, appears as a U.S. Senator eager to subject Iron Man to eminent domain; and Mickey Rourke arrives, fresh from the same tattoo-parlor-cum-Russian-accent-school recently popularized by Viggo Mortensen, with an Eastern promise of his own.
Even as the opening of Iron Man 2 segues directly from the conclusion of its predecessor, it inverts the story gently: another physicist-son watches Stark's triumphal press conference announcing "I am Iron Man," and sets out to validate the memory of his physicist-father by building his own suit of badass body armor. In this case, the manufacture takes places in a dingy Russian apartment rather than a Central Asian cave and the inventor in question, Ivan Vanko (Rourke), soon to be known as Whiplash, is about as far from an international playboy as one can be while still belonging to the same biological genus. Yet, as is so often the case in such tales, the connection is nonetheless intimate: Vanko's physicist-dad worked with, and was eventually deported by, Stark's physicist-dad. So when the Sins of the Fathers later show up for a visit, we all know whose doorbell they'll be ringing.
In the meantime, though, Iron Man is the toast of pretty much every town he sets boot in, from Malibu to Washington. He's even scored himself a "Person of the Year" cover from Time magazine which, whatever you think of it on the merits, is surely an upgrade from "You." In the interest of science and world peace, he also sponsors a belated sequel to the "Stark Expo" of 1974 (a light gloss on the 1964 World's Fair), jumping out of a cargo plane to land onstage in Flushing, NY, in front of a shimmying chorus of girls whose halter tops and short-shorts are in Iron Man's trademark crimson and gold. (I consider myself above commenting on their, ahem, headlights.)